Human Rights Leadership Profile

Unpaid Debt

      According to veterans and those concerned about their care, Shays and his subcommittee have been instrumental in advancing the cause of those affected by exposure to chemical or biological weapons, and undoubtedly contributed to President Clinton’s decision, announced on November 8, to appoint a new five-member panel to direct further investigation of Gulf War Illness, with former Senator Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) as chairman.

      When Senator Don Riegle retired in 1995, Gulf War Illness was essentially dropped as a priority by Congress, said Chris Kornkven, a Gulf War veteran and president of the National Gulf War Research Center. “It wasn’t until Congressman Shays began investigating this issue that there was any hope it would be resolved,” he said.

      After Michael Stacy, who served with the 2nd Armored Division as a loader on an Abrams M1A1 tank, returned home, he found, among other things, that he could no longer have normal sexual relations with his wife, a fact he attributes to being exposed to toxins during the Gulf War, including large quantities of depleted uranium. Like so many other veterans, government doctors told him his problems were all in his head, i.e., that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

      “It would be easier to convince you I had been abducted by aliens than to convince the VA I had a physical problem,” Stacy said. After years of encountering continual negation of his condition, he said, “The VA had me whipped.” When the invitation came to testify before Congressman Shays’ subcommittee, he accepted the opportunity. Being able to tell his story was itself therapeutic, he said: “I regained my pride and my dignity.”

      Jim Tuite, director of the Gulf War Research Foundation, believes Congressman Shays provided responsible leadership and views the hearings he chaired as “a very positive step forward,” one that established without question that Gulf War veterans were exposed to toxins. He predicts the hearings will lead to legislation that will benefit all affected Gulf veterans. “From there we can do the research and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Tuite said.

      In the words of Congressman Shays, “It is simply not acceptable for the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense to declare repeatedly ’there is no evidence’ of exposure or effects, when the evidence has never been sought.”

      The key question, he said, is “Are sick Gulf War veterans getting better? Until the answer is yes, our work as a Congress and as a nation remains unfinished, our debt to veterans unpaid.”


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